Bibi’s Coalition Gamble

February 20, 2013 § 6 Comments

It has been almost a month since the Israeli election, and yesterday finally brought us the first move to form a coalition as Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party agreed to join up with Bibi Netanyahu and Likud Beiteinu. I have been skeptical throughout the campaign and the election’s aftermath that Livni would come to an agreement with Netanyahu given her efforts to convince Ehud Olmert and even Shimon Peres to run; her failed maneuvering at uniting Hatnua, Labor, and Yesh Atid into an anti-Bibi bloc; her constant railing against Netanyahu as a danger and a failed prime minister; the fact that Hatnua includes former Labor leaders Amir Peretz and Amram Mitzna, neither of whom are exactly Netanyahu cheerleaders; and finally, her refusal to join with Bibi after the last election when her party – which was then Kadima – had the most seats in the Knesset and she would have been able to work out a deal in which she served as co-prime minister. Nevertheless, Livni has now reversed course and has accepted the positions of Justice Minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians, and she will be reporting to Netanyahu rather than the eventual Foreign Minister in this latter gig.

Many people are now speculating on what this means for the peace process and whether Livni’s overseeing negotiations means that we can expect some real movement ahead. I don’t think this changes anything and I wouldn’t be taking any investment advice from people who think that Livni is going to pull Netanyahu along rather than the reverse, but the really interesting angle here is the political one. Bringing Livni into the coalition is not about Netanyahu signaling anything on the peace process, but about putting pressure on Naftali Bennett to join the government. The thinking on Netanyahu’s part goes as follows: he now has 37 seats lined up and getting Kadima and its 2 seats is a given, and he is on the verge of adding Shas (his real goal all along) and its 11 seats, which means that he can then turn to Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi and use their 12 seats to get past the magic number of 61. Netanyahu is gambling that once he adds Kadima and Shas, he will present Bennett with an ultimatum of joining the government or calling new elections, and that Bennett will not be able to withstand the pressure ensuing from calls for him to join a rightwing coalition and so he will crack. Essentially, Netanyahu is betting on Bennett’s alliance with Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid not being strong enough to buck the rightwing nationalist forces in HH who want to band together with Likud and the religious forces in HH who don’t see why serving in a government with Shas is the end of the world. Hence the immediate rumors that negotiations with Shas are proceeding and that it too will join the coalition imminently.

This plan of Bibi’s seems nicely formulated, but ultimately I don’t think it will work. More importantly, if Bennett is smart he will make sure that it doesn’t. The success of Bibi’s strategy turns on the idea that Bennett will do anything to avoid going to another round of elections, but much as I thought (correctly, as it turned out) that Netanyahu miscalculated in allying with Yisrael Beiteinu, I think he is miscalculating here as well. Netanyahu’s gamble is that new elections will cost Bennett seats and weaken his position, and that might have been true before yesterday, but bringing in Livni changes things in a big way. If I am a HH voter, I am not going to punish the party for not joining with its natural Likud partner by fleeing and and now voting for Likud since bringing Tzipi Livni on board to deal with peace process issues makes Likud untrustworthy. Looking at this map of election results and seeing where HH got votes makes this point abundantly clear; voters in Elon Moreh and Karnei Shomron are not now going to give up on Bennett and vote for Bibi given his most recent coalition choice.

In addition, many Likud voters are not going to be terribly happy now that Netanyahu has banded together with Livni, and I don’t see how doing so possibly increases his share of votes at all in a hypothetical new round of elections. If anything, it drives even more people away and into the arms of Bennett, and if you need some further proof, just look at Moshe Feiglin’s crack today that he hopes Likud will be in the coalition too. Furthermore, by trying to repeat history and bring Shas – his most pliable partners – into the coalition, Netanyahu is turning his back on the draft issue, which is one of the most popular issues in Israel today and which Lapid rode to his stunning success. Not only is Netanyahu potentially angering his base by bringing Livni in, he is angering many other voters who don’t understand why he insists on bringing Shas into the government despite the massive popular will for reforming the draft. Given what has transpired, if new elections were held today, I think that Likud would drop even further while Habayit Hayehudi and Yesh Atid would pick up some new mandates.

Netanyahu is behaving as if bringing first Livni and then Shas into the government gives him all the leverage he needs over Bennett to break up the YA-HH alliance, but I think he has things wrong. If he brings in Shas, he will then be unable to form a government without Lapid or Bennett (I am operating on the assumption that Labor is not joining at this point), and so in reality Bennett will be the one with the leverage over Netanyahu. Reports are that Bennett is feeling heat from within his party over his footdragging to run to Likud and his head-scratching unbreakable bond with Lapid, but by brining Livni into the government, Netanyahu actually did Bennett a favor. He now has a good excuse to sit tight, and once Netanyahu strikes a deal with Shas, he benefits further from sticking to his guns on the draft issue and staying out. If I were Bennett and Netanyahu presented me with the ultimatum to join the coalition with Shas or go to new elections, I would be printing up new campaign posters before even getting off the phone.

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Did Israelis Give The Center A Big Win?

January 24, 2013 § 9 Comments

Now that the final results of the Israeli election are in, everyone is rushing to declare that centrist parties were the big winners and that the Israeli electorate has made a surprising shift away from the right. This is understandable in light of the fact that Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party won 19 seats to become the second largest party in the Knesset and Bibi Netanyahu led the Likud-Beiteinu list to an extremely disappointing 31 seats, down from the 42 seats that Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu control in the current Knesset. Nevertheless, I think that this view of things is incorrect. As I argue in Foreign Affairs, this does not take into account that the other so-called centrist parties did poorly and finished well below expectations and that many Likud voters chose to move even farther to the right by giving Habayit Hayehudi 12 seats. In addition, Yesh Atid can be characterized as centrist in some ways but as pragmatically rightwing in others, and so dubbing yesterday’s results as an unabashed win for the center is misleading. In fact, the center controls 28 seats in the current Knesset, but will control 27 seats in the next one (19 for Yesh Atid, 6 for Hatnua, 2 for Kadima), so in reality the center actually lost ground. No doubt Lapid scored a big victory, but one centrist party doing well does not mean that Israel is now avowedly centrist, particularly when other centrist parties turned in disappointing performances and the banner rightwing nationalist party more than doubled its current Knesset representation. Here is a teaser from my piece in FA:

The problem with this narrative, however, is that Tuesday’s results were not really a victory for centrists and Yesh Atid is not really a centrist party. The largest vote-getter was still Likud-Beiteinu, made up of arguably the most right-wing version of Likud in the party’s history and the nationalist and pro-settlement Yisrael Beiteinu. Bayit Yehudi also did well, and it will be the fourth largest party in the Knesset with 11 seats. On the left, Labor underperformed and could not even garner enough votes to win second place as expected. Livni’s Hatnua, meanwhile, won fewer seats than even the parochial ultra-orthodox party, United Torah Judaism. Kadima, a real centrist party, has all but disappeared, plummeting from 28 seats to two. Even though the right-wing parties did not do quite as well as they had hoped, the larger picture does not support the claim that the center scored a great victory.

Furthermore, the grouping of Labor, Hatnua, and Yesh Atid under a centrist or center-left banner is analytically lazy. On economic issues, those three parties do indeed fall within the left and the center. On security and foreign policy issues, Labor and Hatnua are centrist as well. Yesh Atid, however, cannot be accurately described as centrist when it comes to the peace process. Lapid has stated that Jerusalem cannot be divided under any circumstances and insists that standing firm on this issue will force the Palestinians to recant their demand that East Jerusalem serve as the capital of a future Palestinian state. During the campaign, Lapid chose the West Bank settlement of Ariel as the place to give a major campaign speech calling for negotiations with the Palestinians, and declined to endorse a settlement freeze. None of this is enough to put him into the far-right camp, which rejects the two-state solution and calls for annexing the West Bank, but it also does not make him a centrist. In fact, Lapid’s views on security issues are close to those that Netanyahu has publicly staked out.

To read the rest please click over to Foreign Affairs, and comments and emails are welcome as always.

Netanyahu’s Conundrum

January 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

Yesterday morning before any of the election results were in, I had a piece up at the Atlantic arguing that the coalition stability that was a hallmark of the current government was destined to end. In my view, the choices that Bibi Netanyahu was likely to end up with were going to create pressures from one side or another no matter which path he decided to go down. Here is the relevant passage:

There are two factors that are going to contribute to detonating Netanyahu’s coveted stability. The first is that unlike during the past three plus years, Netanyahu is going to have a significant presence on his right flank both within his party and outside, creating constant pressure to take a harder line on settlements and the peace process. The Likud primary in November created the most right-wing version of the party that has ever existed. For instance, among the returning Likud MKs in the new Knesset will be the inciters of May’s anti-immigrant race riot, a mass of supporters for annexing the West Bank, and new MK Moshe Feiglin who wants to be the Mohamed Morsi of anti-Arab remarks. This group largely distrusts Netanyahu and will be waiting to pounce at even the slightest digression from their preferred policy of holding on to the West Bank forever.

In addition, Netanyahu will be dealing with the newly empowered nationalist Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) Party, which is poised to become the third largest party in the Knesset. This party is led by Netanyahu’s former chief of staff Naftali Bennett, who also advocates unilaterally annexing Area C of the West Bank and recently got into trouble for saying that he would refuse orders to evacuate settlements. ( He recanted after the predictable furor that arose.) Either as part of the coalition or as a constant thorn in Netanyahu’s side, the large Habayit Hayehudi bloc will be pushing Netanyahu constantly to the right.

The second new factor, which operates at complete cross-purposes to the first, is that Netanyahu will be looking at a renewed push by outside actors on the peace process at a time in which international pressure on Israel is beginning to reach a critical mass. John Kerry is going to want to tackle the peace process as one of his priorities as Secretary of State, and Britain and France intend to present their own plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the support of Germany and possibly the full European Union. Anger toward Israel over settlements and the breakdown of the peace process has lately intensified. Whether this is justified or not, given Palestinian foot-dragging, the anger exists to the point that even Israeli diplomats are beginning to get frustrated over the heat they are taking over West Bank construction.

Now that the results are in, I think this analysis still holds, and is perhaps even more salient to understanding what will happen next. Netanyahu is almost certainly going to have to build a coalition that includes Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi, and this means foot-dragging on the peace process and a storm of international pressure. The option of trying to pivot to the center on security and peace process issues is a lot more difficult today than it was yesterday. Netanyahu had some serious problems within Likud before, since the newly empowered crop of hardliners did not really trust him to begin with, but now he has to deal with the fact that he has led his party to the hollowest of victories. His gambit of merging with Yisrael Beiteinu backfired badly, particularly since only 20 of the 31 Likud Beiteinu MKs hail from Likud because of the seat allocation deal he worked out with Avigdor Lieberman, and undoubtedly Likud members are not very happy this morning. If Yisrael Beiteinu separates from Likud in thirty days as the merger agreement allows, Likud will be the largest party by only one seat. In order to prevent this from happening, Netanyahu is going to have to promise Lieberman the moon and the stars, which also does not bode well for any new push to slow down settlement growth or fast track negotiations with the Palestinians. Any moves that Netanyahu makes in that direction will imperil his leadership as head of Likud and prompt a rebellion within the ranks. Nobody should underestimate just how much pressure Netanyahu is now under from his own side, let alone from the parties on the left of the spectrum that would like nothing more than to bring him down. Netanyahu is in a very difficult spot, and while I am relatively sure he will be able to form a coalition and serve as prime minister, don’t expect it to last very long.

Welcome to Israeli Election Day

January 22, 2013 § 2 Comments

Finally, the day we’ve all been waiting for – Israelis go to the polls today to elect a new Knesset and a new government for the first time since 2009. Despite the fact that we don’t have any results yet, I thought I’d set out a list of things we know and things we don’t.

Things We Know:

Bibi Netanyahu and Likud Beiteinu are going to win the most seats in the Knesset and Likud will be the largest party. This is an easy one given the polls, since even with the Likud Beiteinu list losing about a seat a week for months now, no other party is going to come close to the 32-36 seats LB is likely to take. The irony of course is that Netanyahu created the joint list in order to create an unbeatable force, yet Likud might have done better on its own as banding together with Avigdor Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu likely cost Netanyahu seats for a host of reasons (and from the Department of Shameless Self Promotion, remember who told you months ago that this was a very bad idea on Bibi’s part). Despite the blunder, Labor is probably going to come in second with 15-18 seats, and Habayit Hayehudi and Yesh Atid are going to be battling for 3rd and 4th place. It is possible that the LB list will have twice as many seats as the next largest party despite its free fall in the polls, although this is a bit misleading since the two parties agreed to merge until only 30 days past the election, at which point they are free to revisit their agreement and separate. The most interesting little nugget about Likud being the largest party in the Knesset is that despite having served two terms as prime minister, this will be the first time that Netanyahu leads his party to a Knesset victory. When Netanyahu was elected in 1996, Israel was in the midst of its decade-long experiment of directly electing the prime minister, and so while Netanyahu beat Shimon Peres by 1% in the prime ministerial vote, Likud won 32 seats to Labor’s 34. In 2009, Likud came in second to Kadima, but after Tzipi Livni was unable to form a government, Netanyahu swooped in and cobbled together a governing coalition despite controlling the second largest party in the Knesset rather than the largest. By the end of today, Netanyahu will finally be able to say that he led his party to an electoral victory.

Things We Don’t Know

Everything else. And I mean that. Aside from Likud Beiteinu winning the most mandates, I cannot say with 100% certainty what else will happen. I am 99% sure that Netanyahu is going to be the next prime minister, but there are enough weird things going on to give me that minuscule 1% pause. To begin with, there are an unusually high number of undecided voters, and while they might break Bibi’s way, I don’t think that Bibi’s base is one that is marked by indecision, unless that indecision comprises whether to continue to vote for Netanyahu or to go with the trendier rightwing choice of Naftali Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi.

Furthermore, Netanyahu’s margins are going to be very tight, and this means there is an outside chance that he pulls a Livni and can’t pull off putting together a viable government. I am as confident as I can possibly be that HH is going to be in the coalition, but then the coalition math becomes very tricky. It involves bringing in a centrist party such as Yesh Atid, which will clash with HH and the more extremist Likud voices over peace process issues, or going with Shas and UTJ, who are toxic to HH over the draft and toxic to Yisrael Beiteinu over both the draft and the religious-secular divide. Then there is the possibility that Aryeh Deri’s return to Shas means it is no longer so reliably rightwing and will give Netanyahu a harder time when it comes to coalition bargaining.

To throw another monkey wrench into this, there are the rumblings from all sorts of quarters that the electorate has shifted in the past few days and that the leftwing and centrist parties are going to do better than their polling indicates. If voter turnout is high, it means that left and center parties are going to do better than expected, in which case there is even a possibility that Netanyahu is denied the first chance to form a government. Last month I brought up the possibility of a unity government, which started to look ridiculous in the interim but now I am not so sure that I was off-base. Then there are the rumors that were flying around last night that Ehud Barak is going to be defense minister and Tzipi Livni foreign minister, which I find to be completely far-fetched given the rancor toward Barak exhibited by all sorts of newly influential Likud members and the fact that Netanyahu would never give Livni any real power as foreign minister while Livni would never accept the position to be a mere figurehead. All of this is to say that while Bibi is almost definitely going to remain as prime minister, the possibility of a black swan would not be entirely out of the blue. As for what type of coalition he will put together assuming he remains prime minister, your guess is as good as mine. If I have to predict something, it’s that we will see a nationalist bent due to the inclusion of Habayit Hayehudi, that the haredi parties are going to be left out, and that Yesh Atid will be brought in. This will allow Bibi to keep his rightwingers happy on peace process and settlements, let Yesh Atid have its pet issue of reforming the draft, and not have to worry about the secular-religious divide issue bringing down the government. I can also see Labor being brought into this mix if Netanyahu wants to have the coalition be as big as possible or if the numbers are such that he needs another party but wants to avoid bringing in Shas. Whatever happens, the next few weeks promise to be an entertaining ride.

Following Up On E1 And A Unity Government

January 4, 2013 § 2 Comments

There are a couple of news items today related to two predictions I made last month – that Israel is not actually going to build in E1 and that there is a decent likelihood of a Likud-Labor unity government after the elections in a couple of weeks – so I figured I’d take the opportunity to revisit the topics and see where things currently stand.

In the E1 department, Netanyahu has delayed the plans for building despite the Defense Ministry approving the blueprints and the Civil Administration approving the plans. Predictably, this has raised rightwing ire as there is no word as to when the prime minister’s office is going to file the plans with the zoning committee or what is causing the delay. As you may recall, I argued that this is precisely what was going to happen:

The reason for this is that building homes in E1 has been a longstanding red line for both the United States and the European Union, and that line won’t dissipate just because the Palestinian Authority decided to defy Israeli and American wishes against pursuing a statehood claim at the U.N. The U.S. response to the E1 announcement was unambiguous, labeling it counterproductive and a threat to the two-state solution, and pointing out that settlement building in E1 makes direct negotiations harder, which is a not-so-subtle reminder that this is the exact charge Israel has leveled at the Palestinians over the U.N. strategy…

The U.N. vote came as a surprise to Jerusalem, and Netanyahu knows that actually sending construction crews and cement mixers into E1 will worsen Israel’s image problem. I also imagine that there have been some extremely unpleasant conversations with White House and State Department officials this past weekend given that the E1 announcement came on the heels of unwavering American support over Gaza and at the U.N. As dedicated as Netanyahu has been to the settlement project, even he must now realize that building Mevaseret Adumim is a bridge too far…

Following the embarrassingly lopsided U.N. vote and the criticism from his right that he did not go far enough during Operation Pillar of Cloud, Netanyahu needed to make a big gesture before the January 22 election to demonstrate that he is committed to settlements and that he will not take the PA’s new statehood status in stride. E1 is an enormous deal to the settler wing of Likud, and declaring a new planning and zoning stage is red meat to Israeli right-wing partisans in a variety of camps, whether they be pro-settlements or have a religious or nationalist attachment to an eternal undivided Jerusalem.

The fact that this—just like the Levy Report—is an announcement that will never be acted upon does not negate the fact that it is good politics for Netanyahu. He is going to perform a delicate balancing act, in which he doubles down on settlementsfor a domestic audience while assuring the U.S. and the EU that E1 will remain a barren tract of land.

What has changed since I wrote this is that Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party has skyrocketed in the polls while Likud-Beiteinu has plummeted. The latest poll of polls has LB at 34 Knesset seats and HH at 14.5, which is the continuation of the trend of HH gaining about one seat a week and LB losing about one seat a week in opinion polling. When Netanyahu decided to create the joint Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu list, the idea was to co-opt Lieberman from taking away votes on his right, but he did not foresee another rightwing party posing a serious challenge and siphoning away votes from the LB creation. Now he is dealing with a serious HH presence in the next Knesset, which might be enough of a scare to change his E1 decision. Despite this, I am holding to my original prediction, because while Likud-Beiteinu is going to be a lot weaker electorally than Netanyahu originally envisioned, it does not change the fact that E1 is still a much bigger deal for the U.S. and Europe than almost any other settlement in the West Bank. What I think we are likely to see is Netanyahu keep E1 on the back burner while fast tracking building in East Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Gilo and Har Homa, which will mollify rightwingers somewhat without risking an enormous clash with Western states.

On the unity government front, Labor leader Shelley Yachimovich yesterday indicated that she will not join a Likud government which at first glance seems to blow up my previous analysis. A few point to keep in mind, however, before deciding that Labor is definitively going to be in the opposition. First, Israeli opposition politicians are notorious for blasting the prime minister and making claims about never joining the government right before doing exactly that. For a recent example, go back and look at what Shaul Mofaz was saying about Netanyahu and Likud last spring literally just days before agreeing to form a unity government with Likud. Whatever Yachimovich says know in the heat of an election campaign should be taken with a grain of salt.

Second, in parsing what Yachimovich said, contrary to the reporting and the headlines she actually did not definitely rule out anything and gave herself lots of wiggle room. She said that she wants to be prime minister but that she will lead the opposition if she’s not, and explicitly made clear that she had decided not to join the coalition because of recent radical positions taken by Likud and because of Netanyahu’s embrace of Avigdor Lieberman. According to her, under the current circumstances she cannot work with Likud because “this is not the Likud we all know.” This formulation is expressly designed so that it can be walked back if needed. After the election, with Lieberman’s status uncertain and the electioneering over, Yachimovich can easily say that she has spoken with Netanyahu and that they have agreed on a set of broad principles, coupled with a statement or two from Netanyahu reaffirming his commitment to a two-state solution and finding a solution to the problem of social inequality. Framing her opposition to joining a Likud-led coalition in the terms that she has is not a categorical denial that she will ever agree to form a unity government, but rather a very temporary hurdle that she can dismantle anytime she wants. All that needs to be done is to declare that Likud is actually more reasonable than she originally thought and that she is joining the coalition because it is in the best interests of the country. A General Sherman type blanket denial this was not. Does this mean that a unity government is guaranteed to happen? Of course not, since the fact still remains that Likud and Labor have many sharp disagreements and the coalition politics might be tricky. All I’m saying is that yesterday’s statement does not rule out the possibility.

Rightwing Competition And Settlements

December 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

I wrote a piece for the Atlantic yesterday about how Israel’s recent announcements on settlements in the West Bank and building in East Jerusalem is widely viewed as an effort to punish the Palestinians in the wake of their statehood bid at the UN, but that’s not the only thing driving Israeli policy. The sudden emergence of serious competitors on Bibi Netanyahu’s right flank accounts for much of what is going on as well. Here’s a teaser:

Over the past few weeks, the Israeli government has been on a building spree. First came word that planning and zoning would begin for E1, a controversial move that would further encircle East Jerusalem with settlements — cutting off from the West Bank the part of the city Palestinians demand to be the capital of their future state. As part of the same announcement, Israel said that it was going to build more housing in other parts of the West Bank as well.

This week, the government approved 1500 new housing units in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood in East Jerusalem — the same housing units whose initial announcement in 2010 during Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel caused a temporary rift between the United States and Israel and Hilary Clinton’s chewing-out of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The Interior Ministry and the Jerusalem Local Committee are also expected to approve plans to build in Givat Hamatos and Gilo this week, both of which are new Jerusalem neighborhoods that are also across the 1967 armistice line that divides East and West Jerusalem.

This is all taking place despite enormous pressure and condemnation from Western countries, who are not happy with the escalation of Israeli plans to expand settlements or to build up Jerusalem neighborhoods that challenge the viability of a future Palestinian state. Britain, France, Germany, and Portugal are about to formally condemn Israel over its East Jerusalem building plans, and the 14 non-American members of the United Nations Security Council are going to do the same. Even the United States seems to have lost its usual patience with the Israeli government, deeming the new building announcements part of a “pattern of provocative action” that endangers the peace process and the two-state solution. Israel seems hell-bent on isolating itself over the settlement issue, and appears determined to move ahead with plans for both the West Bank and East Jerusalem no matter the cost.

It is easy to chalk this up to Israel’s fury with the Palestinian Authority’s statehood bid at the United Nations, as the E1 announcement came the day after the vote, amidst stated determination on Israel’s part to punish the Palestinians for pursuing unilateral moves outside of the Oslo framework. “We felt if the Palestinians were taking unilateral action in the UN, we had to also send the message that we could take unilateral actions,” Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren said this week, making the connection explicit.

Yet, this does not account for the scope of the recent Israeli announcements, or for the seeming recklessness of drawing real anger and censure from Israel’s Western allies immediately following American and EU support during Operation Pillar of Cloud in Gaza. There is indeed something else going on here, and it has nothing to do with the Palestinians and everything to do with the political jockeying taking place on the right of Israel’s political spectrum before Israelis go to the polls on January 22 to elect their next government.

To read the article in its entirety, please click over to the Atlantic’s website.

Israel’s Next Unity Government

December 18, 2012 § 8 Comments

In the time leading up to an Israeli election, one always gets the impression that Israel’s political system is the most fractured on Earth. Outrageous charges are hurled back and forth, and this year Kadima took things to a new level by adopting an anti-Bibi slogan superimposed on a picture of a nuclear mushroom cloud as its campaign poster. Nevertheless, as Israeli parties and politicians all jockey and maneuver before the January 22 election, it seems to me that if the poll numbers remain relatively stable, there is a good chance that Israel is headed toward a unity government comprised of Likud and Labor. While nobody will come right out and admit that while campaigning, the inter-party dynamics, Bibi Netanyahu’s past preferences, and Labor leader Shelley Yachimovich’s interview over the weekend are all pointing in that direction.

The latest polling – and the first to be released after Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation as foreign minister – confirms the trend that has been taking place for weeks, which is that the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu joint list is polling in the mid to upper 30s range for Knesset seats and is likely to garner fewer seats than the two currently have now (and don’t forget where you first heard that this arrangement was going to backfire). In addition, the Habayit Hayehudi list under Naftali Bennett is holding steady at 11 seats, and is Netanyahu’s natural coalition partner given its rightwing stance. While there are rumors that Netanyahu would rather not deal with Bennett, he cannot afford to have Bennett constantly sniping at him from his right flank, particularly given how rightwing voters appear to be leaving Likud and flocking to Habayit Hayehudi. Including Bennett gets Netanyahu to just under 50 coalition seats, leaving him 10-12 short depending on how things precisely shake out. In the past, Netanyahu has turned to Shas and UTJ to fill this gap, and indeed together they are currently at 16 seats, which would get Netanyahu past the magic number of 60 seats and allow him to continue as prime minister. The problem is that Yisrael Beiteinu has been adamant about not wanting Haredi parties in the coalition, and Bennett last week demanded that Netanyahu take away the Interior and Housing ministries from Shas as part of his general argument that Haredi parties should be kept out of the next coalition. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party might not get enough seats to fill the gap, and even if it does, it will still leave Netanyahu with a very narrow margin and no wiggle room. Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party is probably out too, as Livni and Netanyahu do not like each other and Livni has turned down multiple opportunities to join with Netanyahu in the past. As demonstrated by his move to form a unity government with Kadima last spring, Netanyahu clearly likes to keep as many options open to him as possible, and his current narrow one has been a disaster, with infighting over the Tal Law and Haredi military service being a particular problem. This means constructing a coalition with as many seats as possible and without a big issue that will prove enormously divisive and impossible to overcome.

Enter Labor, which is second in the polls behind Likud Beiteinu, and Yachimovich, who has repeatedly declined to rule out joining a Likud-led coalition and who has insisted that Labor is not a leftwing party but a centrist party. Yachimovich wants to  join the next coalition because she has never served as a minister and is relatively inexperienced and untested. Serving in the government will provide her with some more gravitas and do away with the impression that she isn’t quite ready for prime time, and lay the foundation for a future chance at expanding Labor’s seats and competing to be prime minister. In this vein, yesterday she gave an interview in which she said that the budget for settlements should remain untouched in the absence of a peace agreement with the Palestinians and stressed Labor’s history of building settlements when in government and that Labor has always had a hawkish element, including Yitzhak Rabin. This drew immediate responses from Lapid and Meretz chief Zahava Gal-On, but Yachimovich does not appear to be worried about Gal-On or other leftist parties damaging her credibility. Instead, she is clearly appealing to the fact that Israel’s electorate is far more hawkish on the Palestinians and the West Bank than in the past, and is laying the groundwork to be able to join a Likud-led coalition in which support for settlements is going to be a must. It is not accidental that Yachimovich broke her laser-like focus on economic and social issues to talk about settlements rather than Iran, the peace process, Gaza, etc. If there is one issue that will make it possible for Netanyahu to invite Labor into the coalition without risking a rightwing revolt it is support for the settlement budget, and Yachimovich’s interview was an attempt to forestall any criticism that might emerge on this front. While there will invariably be differences in opinion between her and Netanyahu on socioeconomic issues and on the peace process, there is now no daylight on the question of support for settlements. While I am loath to predict anything with certainly when it comes to coalition politics – particularly as I have been burned in the past – the signs as I read them point to a Likud-Labor unity government once the dust settles after the election.

Why Avigdor Lieberman’s Resignation Really Matters

December 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

In an announcement that has long been anticipated, Israel’s attorney general yesterday said that Foreign Minister and Yisrael Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman will be indicted for fraud and breach of trust stemming from his efforts to help former ambassador to Belarus Ze’ev Ben Aryeh become ambassador to Latvia after Ben Aryeh leaked information to Lieberman about the government’s investigation into his dealings. While the breach of trust charge was not a surprise, the fraud charge was, and after saying that he was not going to resign, Lieberman just announced that he will be resigning as foreign minister although he remains as YB party chief and will be running in the elections on the joint Likud Beiteinu list.

When it looked like Lieberman was not going to resign yesterday, there was a lot of commentary on what the indictments would mean for him politically. Brent Sasley called the indictments a distraction and argued that it wouldn’t have much impact on the upcoming election or on Lieberman’s long term goal of eventually becoming prime minister, and I think this is right even after the news that he is stepping down from his cabinet post. Lieberman is still going to get a lot of votes for his party as part of the joint list with Likud, and I think he is also likely to return to his post as foreign minister, even possibly before the election should he work out a plea bargain in time. The short term impact of the indictment and resignation is going to be minimal, and for all of those hoping that Lieberman was going to disappear from public life, you are bound to be very disappointed. Nevertheless, there is an important way in which Lieberman’s indictment and his decision to (temporarily) vacate his FM post matters, but it isn’t about short term politics.

For much of Israel’s history, Israeli politics was dominated by great men who had accomplished substantial things. In some instances they were achievements to be proud of, such as Yitzhak Rabin commanding the IDF to victory in 1967 (at least when he wasn’t suffering a nervous breakdown) and then signing the Oslo Accords in 1993, and in other instances they were (to my mind, at least) not, such as decisions by multiple prime ministers to settle and then settle more the West Bank. Israeli leaders were known for their accomplishments, whether it be creating the institutions of the state, fighting wars against hostile enemies bent on Israel’s destruction, or carving out diplomatic space and cementing alliances. In some ways this was inevitable, as the founding fathers of any state are going to be more accomplished than those that come after them given the nature of the trial by fire that is involved. Yet, even the current generation of Israeli leaders includes seriously accomplished military officers like Ehud Barak, or those with a long history of real diplomatic experience such as Bibi Netanyahu, or people who have grappled with the administrative difficulties of running the world’s most complicated and sensitive city such as Ehud Olmert. Is there a serious drop off from Ben Gurion and Rabin to Netanyahu and Barak? Sure. But Avigdor Lieberman represents a crass and disturbing trend that makes the latter group look like veritably Jeffersonian.

Lieberman has no tangible accomplishments to speak of other than being a thuggish party hack. He went from being a student who stirred up tensions between Jews and Arabs at Hebrew University to being a bouncer to being a Likud functionary beholden to Netanyahu. He has become the leader of his party not because of any substantial accomplishments but because of his Russian background. He has been an embarrassment as foreign minister who has complicated Israel’s relations with a number of countries, contributed to the Palestinian Authority’s losing ground to Hamas, and is frequently sidelined by his own government when it comes to carrying out important diplomacy with the United States that cannot be left in his untrustworthy hands. He has gotten to where he is solely because it has become politically beneficial for Netanyahu to cynically rely on him for political cover and because his party is a solid bloc of reliable Knesset votes. I cannot envision a situation in which anyone turns to Lieberman for real advice on issues of diplomacy or security, or where they feel that his sage counsel is necessary. He is the embodiment of everything that is currently wrong with Israeli politics, from his lack of any tact or moderation to his trail of corrupt and unsavory behavior. My fervent wish is that his resigning as foreign minister in the wake of this indictment will cast a new light on him, and that Netanyahu and the Israeli political class realize how much better off Israel is without Lieberman as its face to the world, even if the hiatus is a temporary one. The more that someone like Lieberman – who, let me be clear, I am going after not because of his political views but because of his utter mediocrity – is marginalized rather than elevated to senior cabinet level posts, the better off Israel will be.

Did Bibi Make A Mistake?

October 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

Like I said yesterday, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Likud Beiteinu deal and whether it is actually going to accomplish what Netanyahu and Lieberman are hoping. I expanded on my thoughts from yesterday for Foreign Policy, and looked at whether Likud Beiteinu is going to add to the vote share that the two parties have separately and what the whole thing means for the U.S. You can read the original article on FP’s website here, and I have reproduced it below for convenience sake.

In an announcement last Thursday that shocked the Israeli political establishment, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman stated their intention to merge Netanyahu’s Likud Party with Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. Despite the contention made by some – notably Haaretz editor Aluf Benn — that this move creates a war cabinet that will make it easier for Israel to strike Iranian nuclear facilities, it’s more likely the two men had domestic politics at the forefront of their minds. In birthing the new Likud Beiteinu, Netanyahu and Lieberman are hoping to create a monolith that will dominate Israeli politics for years to come.

Creating a workable majority in the 120-seat Knesset has proven to be difficult, and always requires a coalition of larger and smaller parties. In the current Knesset, Kadima has the most seats with 28, and Likud comes in second with 27, but these numbers are historically low for the top vote-getters. Two decades ago, Labor won the 1992 Knesset elections after garnering 44 seats and Likud came in second with 32 seats, while the previous election in 1988 had yielded 40 seats for Likud and 39 for Labor’s leftwing bloc. Netanyahu and Lieberman are gambling that their new Likud Beiteinu party will be an electorally dominant rightwing giant by combining the strength of their two parties while also picking up former Likud voters who have voted for Kadima in the past two elections. The hope is that a bigger party will have the strength to withstand hostage-taking demands from smaller parties and be able to push its agenda through the Knesset with a minimum of haggling and horse trading. That agenda is likely to include a renewed push for Haredi military service, more building in the West Bank, and a neoliberal economic policy — and Netanyahu wants to be able to carry his policies out with a minimum of resistance.

While this is nice in theory, it is unlikely to play out in the way that Netanyahu and Lieberman hope. To begin with, the current polls are not looking too promising and show Likud Beiteinu either slipping from its current combination of 42 seats or maintaining the exact same share of the Knesset that it holds now. Controlling 42 seats as a single party would give Netanyahu a lot of power and flexibility, and there is certainly plenty of time between now and the election for Likud Beiteinu to surge in the polls. There are, however, good reasons to believe that the new party is not going to surge, but is actually going to slip.

To begin with, Likud Beiteinu might have a real problem with the Russian voters who make up Yisrael Beiteinu’s base. A poll commissioned for Channel 99 showed only 59 percent of 2009 Yisrael Beiteinu voters casting their ballot for the new mega-party in 2013, with 22 percent undecided. It is very possible that Russian voters who voted for Yisrael Beiteinu because it served as a patronage party bringing benefits to Russian immigrants are rightfully wary that Likud Beiteinu will have the same focus, and are casting around for another party to fill that void.

Within Likud, there is a mirror-image problem of the party’s base of Mizrahi (Jews primarily from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen) voters being turned off by the elevation of the Russian Lieberman to the second-most powerful person in Likud. The party has long struggled with the problem of having a Sephardi grassroots and an Ashkenazi leadership, and the inclusion of Lieberman along with the concurrent exit of Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon, who is of Libyan descent, might very well drive some Likud voters into the arms of Shas, which represents ultra-Orthodox Sephardi voters.

Another reason to suspect that this new arrangement is not going to yield as strong a party as Netanyahu hopes is that it rests on an odd and somewhat counterintuitive theory of party strengthening. As a general rule, the best ways to create a newly large and powerful party are to co-opt the opposition and to create a big tent that welcomes many different factions. The Likud-Kadima coalition agreement in May — despite its quick demise — was actually a successful attempt at such a maneuver since it eliminated Likud’s largest opponent and built bridges between a rightwing party and a more centrist party. The merger deal with Yisrael Beiteinu, however, will not be successful at co-opting smaller centrist parties and it will not create a big tent, as both Likud and YB reside on the right side of the political spectrum.

What this means in practice is that we are likely to see Likud Beiteinu get the largest share of seats in the Knesset but with nothing approaching a mandate for action. Rather than smooth sailing for the ruling party, there will be the usual political gridlock and unstable coalition as the smaller parties extort Likud Beiteinu to fund their pet projects as a condition of joining the government. Lieberman is also an unusually polarizing figure, and his presence at the top will make it harder for a party like Labor to even contemplate joining up in a unity government.

There are also some real implications here for the new U.S. administration, whomever the next president might be. The fact that Netanyahu is not going to be in as strong a position as he anticipates means that he will not be able to afford alienating his settler base or risk an insurrection from Moshe Feiglin, Danny Danon, and the more revanchist wing of Likud. Lieberman, himself a settler, takes an extremely hard-line positions on settlements as well, and thus the new Likud Beiteinu is likely to frustrate any desires on the part of the United States for the Israeli government to either freeze settlement building or to make concessions to the Palestinians, who have been immovably intransigent. The formation of Likud Beiteinu might even deal the final fatal blow to the Palestinian Authority, as Lieberman has been waging a months-long campaign to discredit Mahmoud Abbas by calling him a diplomatic terrorist and is unlikely in his newly powerful position to agree to keep on bolstering the PA. This will create all sorts of headaches for the United States and means that any remaining optimism surrounding the peace process is misplaced.

Netanyahu and Lieberman are banking that their new party will be greater than the sum of its parts, but there is an excellent chance that it will actually be the opposite. Should that turn out to be the case, expect to see a continuation of the congestion that has marked Israeli politics and frustrated its diplomacy over the last decade.

Likud Beiteinu Is Going To Happen, But Is It A Good Idea?

October 30, 2012 § 3 Comments

I’m writing this post at 10:30 on Monday night as a hurricane rages outside my house, and since I somehow inexplicably have power (and really Pepco? I lose power when there is a little drizzle, but you manage to keep it going during a freaking hurricane??) I am going to keep it short and sweet before it goes out. Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu moved one step closer to merging today as the Likud Central Committee voted to move forward with the union. This is going to be the first post of many analyzing whether this move makes sense, and according to the initial polls, the answer is not necessarily. The Channel 10 poll has Likud Beiteinu winning 35 seats, down from their current combined 42, and the Channel 2 poll has LB treading water at 42 seats. The point of this merger was to create a party greater than the sum of its parts, and while we have months to go before the actual vote, so far Bibi Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman do not appear to be moving toward accomplishing that goal.

Why might this be? I think a big part of the answer so far has to do with Yisrael Beiteinu’s base. When the news of the deal broke on Thursday, I wrote the following:

Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, though, are not necessarily better off. Likud is now alternating with Yisrael Beiteinu for the first 42 party slots, which obviously waters down Likud, and the rank and file have got to be furious about this. As for YB, the party’s focus on Russian voters is not going to be as laser-like as it once was, and while it will likely get some more attention for its initiatives at the outset, the independent concerns that YB had are eventually going to be subsumed by the larger Likud project and constituency.

If you look at YB voters, they appear to have some real concerns. The Panels poll conducted for Channel 99 has LB winning 35 seats, and the poll asked 2009 YB voters how they were planning on voting in this election with results that should worry Netanyahu. Only 59% of 2009 YB voters indicated that they are planning on voting for the new LB party in 2013, and an enormous 22% said they were not sure. That 22% is the key to this election, since my strong hunch is that those are the voters who cast their ballot in the past for YB because they counted on Lieberman to represent their interests as Russian olim. It is no longer assured that Likud Beiteinu will perform that same function, and that’s one of the reasons why this merger was, to my mind, a strange and risky move for Netanyahu. He needs to keep all of those Russian voters and then pick up some extra voters along the way, but by banding with Lieberman not only does he risk losing some of the Russian voters, he also risks losing some of his own considerable Mizrachi base within Likud since they are wary of Lieberman and the Russians. Netanyahu now has to do a very precarious dance in convincing both of these camps to hang around, and moves signaling one group that they are still valued are precisely the types of signals bound to turn off the other. How Netanyahu and the new LB party deal with this over the next few months will be very interesting indeed.

More to come when there isn’t an old man outside my window loading pairs of animals into an ark..

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